In my introductory Spanish textbook, it describes the past perfect tense as:

El pretérito perfecto se utiliza para hablar de acciones acabadas en un periodo de tiempo no terminado

Which Google translates as:

The past tense is used to talk about finished actions in an unfinished period of time

I understand the first part about finished actions, but the last part is confusing me. What do they mean by

un periodo de tiempo no terminado

an unfinished period of time

The action has been completed in the past, so why is the time period 'unfinished'

These are some of the uses of this tense that were introduced along with the description

Mi primera semana aquí ha sido muy intensa.

He visitado ya ciudades ...

He viajado en barco ...

He visto pequeños pueblos ...

So to me they were definitely, well and truly in the past.

  • The Spanish term in English is not past perfect. The tense in Spanish refers to the tense called present perfect in English.
    – Lambie
    Aug 6, 2019 at 18:16

5 Answers 5


The meaning of pretérito perfecto is summed up by its two parts. Pretérito means "past"; it refers to the time of the events. Perfecto means "perfect" in the technical sense ("complete") and refers to the grammatical aspect of the events.

In this tense, the broader period of time when the events took place is unfinished in the sense that it hasn't ended in the past; it began there but continues in the present. The events have already finished but the effects endure somehow. (There's nothing in the name pretérito perfecto to suggest this, though.)

In general, pretérito perfecto contrasts with the simple preterit or pretérito indefinido, which shows actions that have been completed in the past and suggests no link to the present.¹ But be aware that in some situations both tenses can be correct, with little difference in meaning. Also note that in Spain the pretérito perfecto is often substituted for the pretérito indefinido,² so the formal definition doesn't always hold.

In English the equivalent tense is called "present perfect", which is somewhat confusing (the English "past perfect" corresponds to the Spanish pretérito pluscuamperfecto).

I would strongly caution against using Google Translate for technical definitions or anything that involves precise nuances of meaning, as is the case. Bear in mind also that grammar has its own terminology in each language, and some of the terms themselves are used differently by different authors. When in doubt, consult your teacher and pay special attention to examples, as they are often more instructive than abstract definitions.


  1. In some texts, including the Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Española (NGLE) the names of the tenses are actually given as pretérito perfecto simple (the simple preterit, as in amé, comí, temí), and pretérito perfecto compuesto (the compound preterit, as in he amado, he comido, he temido). This underscores the close relationship in meaning between the two tenses.

  2. In Spain's Spanish it's rather common to hear, for example, «Ella ha venido ayer y ha comido con nosotros», with the compound preterit, where in Latin America we would say, «Ella vino y comió con nosotros». This kind of substitution of a past, perfect, compound tense for a simple past tense form is exactly the same as the one found in French and German.

  • I like your second paragraph. That would match with the examples from the book (see my edit), as it is written from a continental Spanish viewpoint. So your 3rd paragraph also comes into play. As for Google. I read the description in Spanish and questioned my interpretation, but Google matched what I thought I read. Which prompted me posting a question here. Also I agree in general with consulting my teacher, but this question arose between classes and I wanted a general understanding before asking - due to the 'quality' of the book and the 'quality' of other things.
    – Peter M
    Aug 6, 2019 at 13:56

The action might have been completed, but the period of time is in course.

From: http://babelnet.sbg.ac.at/carlitos/ayuda/preterito_perfecto.htm

El pretérito perfecto expresa acciones realizadas en el pasado y que perduran en el presente


Este verano ha llovido mucho.

It says "This summer has rained a lot", but summer is still in course and we could say that it has already rained a lot, that's the meaning of unfinished time.


I was able to find the quote in some slides online, and the quote does indeed appear exactly as you provided. But their definition looked a bit off to me, so I tried to find a minimalist modification that would result in a definition I'd feel more comfortable with.

Here's the definition given at babelnet:

El pretérito perfecto expresa acciones realizadas en el pasado y que perduran en el presente. | The pretérito perfecto expresses actions carried out in the past, which continue into the present [i.e., a period which is still ongoing].

We see that the definition in your book would make more sense with one small change:

El pretérito perfecto se utiliza para hablar de acciones realizadas / completadas en un periodo de tiempo no terminado. | The pretérito perfecto is used to speak about actions carried out in a period that has not come to an end.

Now, looking back at the original definition in your book, we can make sense of it by thinking of acabadas as meaning "completed" (as opposed to "finished"). Looking at it this way, I eventually came around to grudgingly accepting the definition given in your book. But I do find it badly written. I don't know if this was an isolated problem, or if the book is written in a confusing way in general.

Please note that pretérito perfecto refers to both perfect tenses, the present perfect as well as the past perfect.


Doña Mari ha vivido toda su vida en EEUU. | Doña Mari has lived in the US all her life.

Juan había trabajado ahí cuatro años cuando pidió un traspaso a otra actividad por motivos de salud. | Juan had worked at the company for four years when he requested a transfer to another job function due to health reasons.

  • I think you did a great job deconstructing their definition. I think my confusion stems from their examples being completed at a fixed point in the past (see my edit), but their definition encompassing the full scope of the tense. BTW this is not an isolated problem. This book is universally disliked by everyone for a number of reasons.
    – Peter M
    Aug 6, 2019 at 13:40
  • @PeterM - Do you have an alternate text that you can be comparing with as you go along? I guess you need the official text book for the dialogues, reading, vocabulary lists and exercises, but the grammar definitions and explanations you can look up in another book, I would think. // Are you still a bit unsure about how the present perfect tense works? This tense is probably discussed pretty thoroughly over at English Language Learners. I imagine you can find multiple ways of thinking about it in some of the posts there. Here's a food example: I've had my breakfast already, but thanks.... Aug 7, 2019 at 3:31
  • ... Even though the meal is finished, we still feel the effects of the breakfast. Aug 7, 2019 at 3:31

The first part of your sentence would better be translated as

The present perfect is used to ...

The present perfect is its own verb tense, that's pretty much independent of either the preterit or the imperfect, which is what people typically think of when they say "past tense."

Edgar's answer concisely covers the gist of it, but I'd add that the best way to think of the present perfect is to remember that it works the same way in English.

If in English you'd say

She has read five pages of the book

in Spanish, you could say

Ha leído 5 páginas del libro.

If in English you'd prefer to say

She read five pages of the book

in Spanish, you'd say

Leyó 5 páginas del libro.

See how there's a subtle difference in the meanings, from when we use the perfect tense versus when we just use the past tense? The exact same difference carries over from English to Spanish.

Hope this helped!


The meaning of pretérito perfecto in English is not past perfect. It's present perfect and from that springs all the confusion here.

The present perfect in English also concerns a period of time that is not yet finished when a sentence is spoken or written or the action in the past has not be specifically defined (as in: I went to town yesterday.).

Here is a very simple example:

  • He trabajado mucho ultimamente.

  • I have worked a lot recently.

Unfortunately, English speakers are not taught grammar in school so their mistakes are corrected by their teachers but usually they are not taught the names of the tenses.

All the sentences in Spanish in the question would be translated using the present perfect tense.

For example: He visitado ya ciudades. = I have already visited cities.

In English, at the time of speaking, what is said (I have visited cities) is still true. That is another feature of the present perfect, in both Spanish and English. The action or situation is located in the past, but that past is undefined at the time of speaking. Both these features are exactly the same in English and Spanish.

The difference between "I went to town yesterday" and "Fui a la ciudad ayer." are exactly the same. The simple past in both signals that the time of the action is over. Compare that to: "I have gone to town recently" and "He ido a la ciudad recientemente."

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